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New Who 6.9: Night Terrors

Well, that was a great deal better than last week's episode as far as I'm concerned. Everything that Fear Her wanted to be and failed miserably at, and easily Mark Gatiss' best episode since The Unquiet Dead. Clearly a low-budget number, too, with just a few fairly cheap sets and costumes, and no great need for big set-pieces or special effects. That certainly isn't a guaranteed recipe for success (see previous reference to Fear Her), but when you do have a good script, a simple setting can help to focus the attention on it very nicely.

The main story was small and unpretentious in scale, which came as a great relief after the rather garbled complexity of last week's episode. Plenty of time to bring out and explore the theme of family tensions and resolutions, while also allowing room for some clever touches and good old-fashioned silliness along the way. In this sort of context, we can enjoy chewing over ideas like the nursery stories which the Doctor recalls from his childhood - just the same as ours except with Sontarans and Emperor Daleks, and thus creating a sense of a whole wide universe tied together by a set of essentially identical myths.

I was particularly taken (as I usually am) by the various meta-references scattered through the story. I read some of them as fairly straightforward nods towards the filmic nature of the story which we were watching - like Amy and Rory finding themselves trapped in an environment full of fake wooden saucepans and painted clock-faces (much like a film-set), or Purcell the nasty landlord flicking past thirty-year-old TV shows in his flat (though Bergerac is quite the spring chicken next to Doctor Who). But I thought a few became more specific, too. The flats where George and his family lived struck me from the opening scene as being very Powell Estate, and a comment from Rory to Amy later on about how the Doctor was "back there in EastEnders land" felt very much to me like a direct comment on the sort of world Russell T. Davies tried to create, and which has now become a thing of pastiche and nostalgia in the Moffatverse, rather than symbolic of real life as it once was. This was perhaps reinforced by the references to inversion in the arrival scene, which began with a shot of the TARDIS itself reflected upside-down in a puddle, and continued with dialogue between the Doctor and Rory about how Rory meant the opposite of what he was actually saying. That too would work as a comment on how radically Doctor Who has now changed since the RTD era - but then again it also works in relation to the not-quite-right family at the centre of the story, whose history has been changed by a child who isn't what he seems.

Speaking of history, this is actually Gatiss' first non-historical story for Doctor Who, although the sense of the past was very strong throughout - in the retro look of the family's flat, for example, or Rory's reading of the interior of the dolls' house as "1700 or something". But perhaps the historical dimension this time comes in the form of the nostalgic trip backwards to the early days of New Who? More recent references were in play too, though. Certainly, the eye in the drawer in the dolls' house kitchen reminded me very strongly of the Atraxi (or 'an Atraxus'?) from The Eleventh Hour. Are we to understand that they had been trying to track down George / the Tesla (spelling is a guess, there) at some point? It's also the second story in a row to feature characters becoming miniaturised and ending up inside an object smaller than themselves. Here, though, the Victoriana of the dolls' house gave it a much more Alice in Wonderland vibe than the hi-tech of the Teselecta, which seemed more in the vein of Fantastic Voyage (and therefore also The Invisible Enemy).

If this episode had been a true stand-alone, I'd have been entirely happy with it - simple, effective, and nicely put together. But once again we were carefully reminded of the wider plot-arc by a view of the TARDIS screen displaying the Doctor's date of death (which is now getting rather like the time-crack from the previous season). If that had to appear, then I could have done with a little more sense of emotional connection with previous episodes to go along with it. Are Amy and Rory really, as they appear, now perfectly happy to know that their baby will grow up to become River Song, and not at all concerned that they have missed her first few years, during which time she was held prisoner and brainwashed by the Silence? Doesn't the experience of seeing George with his father remind them of what they have missed? All of this is rather a good example of the problem with trying to squeeze a traditionally episodic show like Doctor Who into the mould of US-style long-running story arcs. The two formats can work together, but it needs careful work - and I still don't think Moffat has quite nailed it.

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( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 4th, 2011 05:43 pm (UTC)
My thought at the end was how Sapphire & Steel it was - creepiness done well on a low budget. I approve.

> the retro look of the family's flat

Yes, I assumed at first it was set in...well, any time from the Second World War onwards. And oh how I coveted George's wallpaper! I kept hoping for a closeup.
Sep. 4th, 2011 05:59 pm (UTC)
The retro-ness is a little odd, really. I think we were supposed to understand the family as living on the breadline, given that they were clearly struggling to make their rent. But all their stuff seemed pretty clean and well-kept. It looked to me much more like a deliberate attempt at fashionable retro than things they hadn't been able to afford to replace.
Sep. 6th, 2011 08:32 pm (UTC)
Great review. I thought the period references were rather garbled - another reviewer spotted that the continuity announcement on the television was from 2004, but George's age rooted him in 2011 - as if communication was poor among those making the series.
Sep. 4th, 2011 07:01 pm (UTC)
The main thing I thought on the episode was that the end seemed to come rather abruptly. I had thought it was going to turn into a two parter but it felt that everything then moved really fast towards the end with the doctor seemingly from nowhere working out what was going on and exactly how to solve it without feeling like much work was being put into it. It wasn't awful, it just felt in some ways a bit unsatisfying.

Also the appearance of the metaplot at the end was the most shoehorned thing I can recall in some time. There didn't really feel like there needed to be anything there at all and that after the episode had been finished somebody was all "OMG! We forgot to mention the metaplot!" and they just randomly tacked it on the end.

It was actually quite a good episode overall though. I did enjoy it. :)
Sep. 4th, 2011 07:31 pm (UTC)
Yes, I do agree about the rather abrupt, out-of-nowhereness of the ending. And on the metaplot, apparently this episode was originally intended to be the third in the series, but was swapped with The Curse of the Black Spot because it was felt that the first half of the series would be too unremittingly dark otherwise. That would certainly explain the feeling of shoehorning!
Sep. 6th, 2011 08:34 pm (UTC)
I think, just to be pedantic, it was going to be fourth, with 'The Doctor's Wife' third - hence the Flesh reference at the end.

Accelerated plot in the last ten minutes seems very much to be a Gatiss trademark - see 'Idiot's Lantern', especially, which yearns to be an old-fashioned four-parter.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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